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No Man’s Sky highlights the agony and bliss of travel

Very few games encapsulate travel’s dramatic motion and dull impatience so well

No Man’s Sky - fighter approaching a ringed planet Hello Games via Polygon

Hunting for new planets in No Man’s Sky requires a lot of travel.

At the basic level of the game’s “pulse drive” speeds, a player will spend anywhere between 25 and 90 seconds trying to reach the nearest destination within a galaxy. While you can skip between galaxies or teleport between a few key location, you still need to sit tight when you hop between planets. Yet the trip is always gorgeous, and it builds anticipation in ways that simply being beamed down onto the surface wouldn’t allow.

The real-time travel isn’t an annoyance. It’s a part of No Man’s Sky’s rhythm, something that makes this exploration game feel different from others in the genre. No Man’s Sky seeks out the boring (yet somehow fulfilling) parts of travel and crafts an experience around them.

When being lost feels great

“Mundane” travel in games so rarely reflects the way we handle it in reality. Most games don’t take the opportunity to mirror our actual travel experiences with planes, buses or cars.

It’s far more common for games to actively move away from requiring travel, implementing “teleport” or “fast travel” features, even when the distances are minimal. In large-scale and open-world games, these shortcuts encourage players to put aside the sweeter nuances of long-distance travel. There is no journey, only destination.

This makes sense. Travel can be its own type of labor, and it requires patience. There are a million suggestions and workarounds out there for how to keep your mind occupied while going from point A to point B. We don’t all want to sit there for hours, or even a few minutes.

There’s a reason people keep dreaming of flying cars. We just want to be there already, dammit. But travel is a necessary process that, as hard as we try, may be impossible to eliminate fully. It’s a mental exercise, but we suffer it because it’s one with an inherent conclusion. Being able to stare out of a window and reflect is its own reward.

Travel is a rare chance to breathe, read or just watch the scenery go by. With a little bit of practice, it can be a meditative experience, and gives us some time and space carved out of our routine to take the world in.

No Man’s Sky’s primary travel mechanics, by nature, encapsulate that mental push and pull behind travel almost every time a player moves to another planet. Maybe one player is bored in that minute or two, but to others, it’s a chance to catch a break in a hectic, sometimes demanding game. You just get to breathe, and wonder what’s coming next.

Trying to capture the precise mixture of boredom and longing in a video game is a challenge, especially when you’re taking time out from a player’s experience. It’s not as easy as making the player sit in a car every trip, because we’re so used to that down time being eliminated for our convenience. But someone is lost when that happens.

The magic of arrival

Hello Games understands how to make the process part of the joy of discovery — by making the approach and arrival a visual and gameplay treat. It’s also one that can be enjoyed passively; you don’t have to do anything other than be in the moment.

Planets once far and distant grow bigger, and your destination begins to come into sight. Most places will take up your entire screen. By that point, you’re likely itching to land and step off for a bit.

But if you blink, you may miss the biome coming into view, its colors emerging as you break through the clouds. The plants and animals form below, and the world is realized. It may be what you imagined, or it may be something very different. The encounter is something out of a science fiction or fantasy movie: This was the experience of flying into Wakanda, taking the train to Hogwarts or moving outdoors onto alien terrain for the first time in Halo.

In No Man’s Sky, the payoff for the required patience of travel is grand and breathtaking moments of newfound wonder, taking place over and over as one traverses the system and visits new destinations. But you have to suffer those extended, or brief, depending on how you think about in relation to real-world travel, moments of boredom.

These approaches to each planet are well-crafted moments of emotional and visual intimacy in a nearly infinite universe. Yet, these personal encounters with the universe of No Man’s Sky would be nothing without the anticipation and visual framework that travel creates. Here, the journey is just as important as the destination. Or at least it’s still a part of it.

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